In April I put Lizzie Borden in the drawer. After 10 years with her and her family, it was time to take a long break and begin work on something new. The distance between us was easy breathing. For the first time in a long time I stopped dreaming of Lizzie, stopped thinking about the way she might move around her house, stopped wondering if she talked in her sleep. I had lost a shadow. I started sleeping in to 7 am.
Around 3 years ago, I began searching for my next project. It was exciting to think about what it might feel like to experience new characters and expand on the themes that I was exploring in the current project. That’s when the recurring dream started. A single image: a woman driving to the Blue Mountains with a decomposing child in the back seat.
I knew immediately this was the next book. The instinct was there, the way it sat in my body and hooked. It had been that way with Lizzie. Now the feeling was back. But I knew the book would have to wait until I was ready. Over the years, the woman, who I had begun to call Eleanor, would float in while I was with the Borden’s and I would jot down her ideas, put the notebook away and return focus.
Cut to April. I was taking a writers’ residency and finishing another draft of the manuscript. I finished the draft on a Wednesday and started the new project the next day. I realise now how ridiculous and exhausting a decision that was. But Eleanor couldn’t wait any more. Like turning on a tap. It was coming and I struggled to keep up. It was both liberating and frightening. It was like this: I was thrilled to be with new characters and to sound them out, explore the world I was beginning to create. I’d be writing a book entirely in 3rd person (except when I figured out that probably wasn’t necessarily the case…). I now had an awesome excuse to visit the Blue Mountains a lot.
But I also felt anxious and overwhelmed: I was at the very start of a project and it felt like I was falling through the floor. I believed (perhaps still do to some degree) I still had no idea how to write a book. Or write for that matter. There was years of writing and research ahead of me. I felt like I was falling through the floor. I knew the first draft was going to be a really bad. Really, really bad. I was beginning from scratch. I didn’t want to write a first draft, I wanted to write draft 10, close to polished. I’d have to endure a new round of people asking me, ‘How’s that novel going?’ I’d have to keep getting up at 5 am to write. I wasn’t 100% positive I knew what the novel would and could be about. I was going to have to get used to the idea that my new characters would slip into my dreams most nights, just like Lizzie had.
I pushed on. Kept going.
I knew at some stage I’d have to revisit Lizzie et al (2016 sounded pretty good to me). Until then, I’d enjoy developing the car- trip- with -decomposing -baby- project.
Things don’t go to plan.
It’s August. I’ve started redrafting. The new project is on hold.
But things are different this time. There are going to be many changes. The first, the most pressing, it to get rid of one narrator and replace it with a new one, Bridget, the Borden’s Irish maid. When the decision was made, I heard Bridget’s voice inside my ear, like she’d been there the whole time. The things she is telling me.
I am excited but anxious. I’ve started dreaming of the Borden’s again. In some ways, I have to start from scratch. The anxious brain says: I don’t know how to write a book. What the hell am I doing?
I’ll be documenting the whole thing.
Here’s an incomplete snapshot of the current process and progress. I’ll follow up with more next time:
The first night of rewriting I dreamt of Bridget. She said:
I eat my country. That sound, that air, that green. Ireland. I eat my memories, handful after handful until I am calm.
Opening lines. I’m still trying to figure Bridget out but I was surprised at how deliberate and assured she came through when writing. I think I’ve probably always had an inkling of what Bridget might have seen in the house, perhaps even speculated what it was like for her to live with such a dysfunctional family, to be the outsider. It doesn’t make the writing and drafting process any easier. It just means I can tune into her voice more readily.
The next day I went for a long walk to try and figure out some narrative questions that were forming. As usual, I ended up at the old asylum near my house (and yes, the asylum features in the new novel. Don’t worry, I’m all over it!) Anyway, I came across some rotting vegetables at the base of a tree on the asylum’s property:
Seeing these rotting vegetables and thoroughly checking them out (I may or may not have prodded some of them with a stick and been attacked by fruit flies and other insects) gave me ideas, not just for the second project (still on hold, mind!) but for Bridget and the novel overall. I was forced to type a lengthy note on my phone before the ‘creative revelations’ disappeared:
Consider the possibility that Benjamin is just one person and James doesn’t exist. That is, no split personality…
It made sense to me at the time. I cut the walk short and went home to write. I also inspected my vegetable crisper, just to make sure my vegetables were still fresh. Rotting veggies are nasty. Interesting but nasty. They can make you question all sorts of things.